The Growing Strategic Imbalance

There is a clear and growing negative tilt in the strategic military balance between the United States and its allies on the one side of the scales and rogue states and prospective adversaries on the other side. A combination of factors — war weariness, financial crises, unfavorable demographics, the growing weight on national finances of entitlement spending, the rising costs associated with modern, all-volunteer militaries and the global commons and a failure to make the case publicly for adequate defense spending — has contributed to the pronounced decline in Western military strength. Among America’s major allies, only a bare handful spends as much as two percent of GDP on defense (the U.S. spends almost four percent). Virtually no U.S. ally today maintains a full spectrum military, one capable not only of defending its own territory but of projecting and sustaining a credible conventional combined arms capability to an adjacent theater. Most recently, France required U.S. logistical, ISR and aerial refueling support just to move the equivalent of an Army brigade to Mali and to sustain operations by fewer than ten fighter aircraft. Even as a collective, it is uncertain that NATO minus the United States could successfully project even moderate conventional military power across the Mediterranean or into the Middle East.

The United States is about to tilt further the scales against its own interests. Sequestration, the law deemed too terrible ever to be implemented, is about to impose serious and poorly distributed cuts in defense spending across virtually the entire Department of Defense. By some estimates, the military will have to cut the size of the military, retire hundreds of airplanes and dozens of ships and drastically reduce training activities. Most major acquisition programs will experience Nunn-McCurdy breaches and, as a consequence, have to be restructured. In addition, even as the nation edges closer to losing its vaunted conventional military dominance, President Obama announced in last night’s State of the Union, a new drive to reduce the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal. It is one thing to propose cutting strategic nuclear forces when you own the conventional warfare battle space but it is quite another to do so while also undertaking conventional demobilization.

Our potential adversaries are on a different course. North Korea celebrated President Obama’s re-election by, first, successfully testing a prototype ICBM and, second, conducting its third test of a nuclear weapon. There are also credible reports that North Korea has deployed a road-mobile medium-range ballistic missile and is building large new missile launch complexes that could be the launch sites for a future ICBM. Iran is busily working to build up its military capabilities, everything from small boats and sea mines to long-range ballistic missiles, drones and even a “stealth” fighter. For more than a decade, China has increased its defense spending by double digits, more even than the annual growth in its GDP. It has developed, deployed and, according to recent reports, demonstrated an operational anti-ship ballistic missile. China’s area denial/anti-access capabilities continue to grow. Beijing is deploying anti-space forces that could deny the U.S. the use of space in a future conflict.

What is already a perceptible tilt in the strategic balance against the United States could become a train wreck if sequestration takes place (and nothing is done to prevent DoD from having to operate under a year-long Continuing Resolution). Like two trains approaching each other at high speed, a decade of declining U.S. defense budgets intersecting the increased defense spending of prospective adversaries could produce a cataclysmic outcome.